Monday, December 23, 2013

Sea Ice Melts in Canadian Arctic as Climate Changes by DeNeen L. Brown

Signs of Thaw in a Desert of Snow: Scientists Begin to Heed Inuit Warnings of Climate Change in Arctic

By DeNeen Brown, Published: May 28, 2002

IQALUIT, Nunavut — And so it has come to be, the elders say, a time when icebergs are melting, tides have changed, polar bears have thinned and there is no meaning left in a ring around the moon. Scattered clouds blowing in a wind no longer speak to elders and hunters. Daily weather markers are becoming less predictable in the fragile Arctic as its climate changes.
Inuit elders and hunters who depend on the land say they are disturbed by what they are seeing swept in by the changes: deformed fish, caribou with bad livers, baby seals left by their mothers to starve. Just the other year, a robin appeared where no robin had been seen before. There is no word for robin in Inuktitut, the Inuit language.
Elders say they are afraid of the changes. "When I was a child, if there was a ring around the sun or the moon, it meant the change of weather in the next few days. Better or worse, it was nature's message for the hunter," said David Audlakiak.
He is walking on a thick layer of ice frozen over the arctic waters. The hills behind him should still be covered in snow, but are mostly bare. Asthis winter ends, he says that it has been warmer than winters past. The bald spots showing the tundra are disturbing.
Audlakiak, who grew up in an igloo, says there are more signs the land, sea and animals are in turmoil. "The weather pattern has changed so much from my childhood. We have more accidents because the ice conditions change. We are living in one of the most unforgiving climates in the world. It is becoming more dangerous every year."
There is increasing evidence that the Arctic, this desert of snow, ice and killing cold wind, one of the most hostile and fragile places on Earth, is thawing. Glaciers are receding. Coastlines are eroding. Lakes are disappearing. Fall freezes are coming later. The winters are not ascold. Mosquitoes and beetles never seen before are appearing. The sky seems to be clapping asthunderstorms roll where it was once too cold for them.
"The Inuit always observed the sun and astrology for direction and for weather," Jayko Pitseolak, anInuit elder here, said through aninterpreter. "We were taught . . . that one day the world will change, and it has."
While scientists debate the causes of climate change and politicians debate whether to ratify the Kyoto accord to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that many scientists believe cause global warming, the Inuit who live in Canada's Far North say they are watching their world melt before their eyes.
For years, the wisdom of Inuit hunters and elders about climate in the Arctic, known as"traditional knowledge," was largely disregarded. Sometimes it was called merely anecdotal and unreliable by scientists who traveled here with their recording devices, measuring sticks and theories about the North. Some of them viewed the Inuit asignorant about a land in which they and their ancestors have lived for thousands of years.
But in the last few years, scientists have begun paying more attention to what the Inuit are documenting, and even incorporating it into their research about changes in the climate, the prevailing weather conditions of a given area. In 1997, the Canadian government mandated that government agencies incorporate traditional knowledge into land-use decisions and consult aboriginal people about the environment.
"Traditional knowledge is very useful," said George Hobson, a geophysicist and retired director of the Polar Continental Shelf Project, a Canadian government agency that provided logistical support to government and university scientists researching the Arctic.
"If you go back 100 years or 200 years ago, European forefathers thought they [the Inuit] were savages. 'What did they know?' they said. But there was traditional knowledge and people were not tapping it. It was just waiting to be passed down. Some people might say, 'I'm a university prof, what does that fellow know? He doesn't have grade six.' But when they have grade six and they have lived out on the land, they had one hell of a lot of knowledge about land and animals. They may not have had the same education, but they were not stupid. You could not be stupid and survive in that kind of climate."
During the past 40 years, average temperatures in Canada's Western Arctic have risen by 1.5 degrees Celsius, to -13.5 degrees Celsius, according to Environment Canada, the government's environment ministry. Temperatures have also risen in the Central Arctic, but not in the Eastern Arctic, where some scientists suggest there may even be a modest cooling. "Global warming doesn't mean all areas will warm," said Tom Agnew, a senior meteorologist with the Meteorological Service of Canada. "Some will warm and some will cool a bit." Some scientists predict a rise in sea levels leading to devastating floods, thinning ice and perhaps even anice-free Arctic within 50 years.
Terry Fenge, former research director of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference of Canada, said that in the last decade scientists have acknowledged the Arctic asa barometer of climate change and the effects of pollution. "This is one of those very important areas where traditional knowledge and traditional science is coming together with Western science and they are both in essence saying the same thing: Climate change is not a future event. It is happening now."
For the Inuit, climate change poses animmediate danger to a way of life. They cannot read the weather the way they used to.
"When you think in terms of the long-term negative effects of climate change, this could be the beginning of the end of the way of life for a whole people," said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, president of the circumpolar conference. "Our cultural heritage is atstake here. We are anadaptable people. We have over the millennium been able to adapt to incredible circumstances. But I think adaptability has its limits. If the ice is not forming, how else does one adapt to seasons that are not asthey used to be when the whole environment is changing underneath our feet, literally?"
For thousands of years, the Inuit have lived by rules that require them to respect animals and the land. The Inuit's ancestors are believed to have arrived in the Western Arctic about 10,000 years ago, migrating from Siberia across what was then the Bering land bridge.
They adapted to the cold climate asthey hunted seals, walruses and beluga whales. It was a time "when people and animals could speak together and when spirits of the sea and the land controlled the fate of both the animal and human world," according to a report by the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, a nonprofit Inuit organization.
Hunters would forecast the weather by looking for signs in the way animals behaved or by looking atclouds, stars, wind, snow and water currents. Some Inuit knew to expect bad weather if a caribou or seal shook its head, according to a report on traditional knowledge by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a research institute in Winnipeg.
"In spring, Inuit expect bad weather when northbound geese reverse direction," the report said. When anecho traveled for miles, poor weather. Cold was expected when "the woodpecker's beak moves fast."
Siloah Atagoojuk, who lives here in Iqaluit, has lines on her face, but she does not want to pretend she knows more than anyone else — nor does she try to assign blame. She is simply worried. Her world is not asit used to be and her people may not be able to adapt to it. "There is sickness in the animals," Atagoojuk says. "The flesh doesn't look good. You have to cook it extra. Even the caribou are not healthy, asfat — same for marine animals. We have known all along since we were little kids there will be a time when the Earth will be destroyed and destroy itself. Seems this is happening."
The sustainable development institute produced a videotape of observations by Inuit hunters and elders that was recently shown asevidence of climate change ata conference in The Hague. In the video, hunters and elders speak about melting permafrost, shrinking glaciers and a stronger sun. There is concern that the community of Tuktuujaqtuuq, in the Western Arctic, could slide into the sea.
"Tuktuujaqtuuq is very low and very vulnerable," said Rick Armstrong, manager of scientific support services for the Nunavut Research Institute. He said ice acts asa buffer between land and ocean and protects coastal communities from storms and erosion. "With the warming, there is a concern they may need to move buildings in Tuktuujaqtuuq."
The Inuit, many of whom toggle between the Stone Age and the Space Age, building igloos and surfing the Web, have created a Web site on which elders and hunters post their observations. "About two years ago, when we were corralling reindeer . . . the north wind started blowing and there were dead birds and dead hair seals and dolphins. All kinds of sea birds that were washed ashore," said Herman Toolie of the community of Savoonga. "And dog salmon that were never touched by sea gull or foxes. They were never eaten. We were wondering why. . . . One of the elders said that these things never used to happen. It is something new to them."
Near the sea's edge, the ice floes are melting. The hunters are heading out on snowmobiles. Natsiapik Naglingniq knows they are headed into danger, unable to rely on the weather or the ice, which is opening and closing, teasing those who walk across it. Just the other day, a hunter went on the local radio to warn that the ice seems to be melting from the bottom.
Naglingniq says that when she was just a girl, living in an igloo, her job was to take out the garbage and, asshe did, take notice of the world.
"When I would come back in,my parents would ask, 'So what was the weather like out there?' I would explain. By explaining the weather to my parents, I learned to be able to tell what the next day's weather would be like."
In the dark, she would watch for a ring around the moon. "That would mean that it will be a bad day tomorrow." But if she saw a clear night and the stars getting closer and farther, asif they were getting bigger and smaller atthe same time, "it meant it will be windy the next day."
In the past, Naglingniq says, there were good days and bad days, but not the same asthe weather today, changing so rapidly that people cannot make sense of the ring around the moon or the burning circle around the sun.
"We were told by the elders atthe time there will be a change," Naglingniq says. Beneath her fur-trimmed parka, her eyes are turning a milky gray, but she says she can see when something is amiss. Last summer, the elders saw insects they had never seen before. "The insects are larger," she says. "It has lots of legs and it is quite big. Assoon asit observes humans, it curls up in a ball. It's strange." She cannot say its name. There is no word in Inuktitut for this insect.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Boxing Champion Who Paved a Way for Other Women Boxers Says She's Down, But Don't Count Her Out

By DeNeen L. Brown, Published: October 19 Diane “Dynamite” Clark jabs, shuffling her feet, circling and throwing punches — left, right, uppercut. At 60, Clark punches with such ferocity that an onlooker pulls away. Jab. Jab. Pop. Pop. She’s wearing a pink headband and hot-pink blouse as she shadowboxes in a community room in a Prince George’s County homeless shelter. She ducks an imaginary blow, her thick hands curled inside imaginary gloves, her eyes fixed on an imaginary slow-moving target. “Whew,” she finally says after a series of rapid-fire jabs, “that’s enough.” She sits down at a table in the shelter that was once a Capitol Heights elementary school. Blind in one eye from a stroke, Clark peers intensely with the other, ready to tell her story. She pushes her self-published book, “Ka-POW! Get the Record Straight,” across the table. The black-and-white cover photo shows Clark in her 1979 title fight in Louisville against Jackie Tonawanda. In the photo, Clark leans back on powerful, thick legs, her arm cocked in midair about to throw a right-hand punch at the woman who towers over her. The frame has frozen “Dynamite” in her prime, in better days. “That’s me in the corner. And that’s her,” Clark recalls. “They called her ‘Lady Ali.’ She was bigger than me, but I had more muscles — look at my legs.” She beams. After six rounds, Clark was declared the winner over Tonawanda by a split decision. “I remember when they said I won, I jumped up. They said, ‘The light heavyweight champion of the world: Diane “Dynamite” Clark!’ I jumped up and fell to my knees and prayed. I jumped in my trainer’s arms.” Then she waited for the presentation of her title belt. “But they didn’t give it to me,” she says. No one ever explained why. Clark pauses and a big tear drops. “When I was little,” she says, “I had a regular belt, and I would jump up and down on my bed like I had won the championship. That was my dream — not to just win a bout but to have the belt.” She never got the belt from the promoters that night, and it crushed her like no blow from another boxer ever could. That night in Louisville, she says, was the last night she was on top of the world. ‘Fighting through struggle’ Thirty-four years later, Clark is living at Shepherd’s Cove, the only homeless shelter for women and children in Prince George’s. “This is where I am for now, until I find an apartment,” she says with resignation. She wound up here after her landlord’s property was foreclosed upon. Her sister, Joyce Chase, 61, who lives in Suitland, says she offered to let Clark stay with her family, as she’d done once before when Clark had a serious bout with the West Nile Virus. But Clark declined. “I called Social Services and found a shelter because I didn’t want to be a burden on my family,” Clark says. “I need to be independent.” Vania Fields, manager of Shepherd’s Cove, says she is amazed by Clark. “She has a phenomenal story,” Fields says. “I tell people, you never know where life will take you. We are all one car accident, one sick family member away from a shelter.” Because of Clark’s partial blindness and renal failure that requires dialysis treatments, shelter officials are helping her find housing suitable for her disabilities. Jill Morris, one of Clark’s nieces, says Clark has always been an inspiration. “She was dubbed in the family as the person of steel,” says Morris, 43, who lives in Gaithersburg. “She thrives off fighting through struggle.” At the shelter, Clark unfolds yellowed newspaper clippings that show her breaking barriers in a male-dominated sport. “Clark dispatches Tonawanda,” declares the Feb. 17, 1979, headline in the Louisville Courier-Journal. Women’s boxing in the United States was in its infancy then, not the Olympic sport and professional draw it is today. Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier — the daughters of heavyweight boxing champions Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier — had yet to command a pay-per-view audience by squaring off in 2001. (Ali won.) People don’t know the history of women’s boxing in the United States and how difficult it was for women to get licenses and fights, Clark says. In 1979, Clark had been a last-minute replacement for another fighter, Lillian Wells, and her victory over Tonawanda was an upset. The paper quoted Tonawanda complaining after the fight: “Tonawanda said she shouldn’t have fought because she was ill, she was out of shape and her legs were weak. Besides, she added, titles shouldn’t be taken away on close decisions.” More than three decades later, Clark is still seething. Tonawanda, who died in 2009, would later claim she had 36 fights and 34 knockouts, and some records would credit her with the title. “That’s funny,” Clark says, “because during the time we were fighting, in the light heavyweight category there weren’t many female boxers to challenge. If there were more challengers, I would have fought them.” ‘Women don’t box’ The first time Clark saw a boxing match, she was 7. Clark had been a quiet child — so quiet, she says, her school in Queens labeled her “retarded” and put her in special classes. Other children used to call her names, take her lunchbox and knock her down. Then her stepfather asked her to watch a boxing match on TV with him. Clark was instantly fixated. “I saw two men boxing in the ring. It wasn’t one man punching on another and getting beat up. He was fighting back. I just stared and watched,” she says. The next time kids picked on Clark at school, she got into a stance like a boxer. “I wobbled my head and I was moving my feet,” she recalls. “My teacher came and pulled me away. From that day, I felt like I grew up, like I wasn’t afraid anymore of anything.” Her mother enrolled her in dance school, but Clark insisted that she wanted to be a boxer. She wrote an essay about her aspirations when she was 13. “I wrote I wanted to be a boxing champion,” Clark recalls. Her teacher “had me read my essay out loud to the class, and everybody started laughing. I just stood there.” Then her teacher went over to her and said: “I’m sorry. This is a man’s sport. Women don’t box.” But Clark refused to accept her exclusion from the sport. At 16, her father took her to meet Lee Blackmon, a legendary trainer at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn where Ali, Frazier and Mike Tyson had trained. Blackmon asked her if she could really fight. She told him she could. Blackmon took a swing at her, and she ducked. “He said, ‘I will train you,’ ” she recalls. She had to go to Canada to fight, because women in the United States couldn’t get boxing licenses. Finally, in 1978, Clark was licensed to box in New York along with Tonawanda, Marian “Lady Tyger” Trimiar and Cathy “Cat” Davis. “These boxers paved the way for some of the women now,” said Rosemary Clark, editor of Undefeated magazine and no relation to Diane. But professional fights for women remained rare in the late 1970s, when Clark was in her prime. The pay was so low — Clark says she earned only $500 a fight — that many of the best women boxers had to find full-time jobs. Clark says she took a job at Rolling Stone magazine, cleaning the cubicles of writers. Then she started partying and her life hit the canvas: drug addiction, a suicide attempt and later, two years in prison for writing bad checks. But she never stopped fighting — for recovery, for respect and for recognition of the title she’d won. Finally, she got a taste of what she was looking for. In 2008, two years after Clark’s release from jail, Undefeated magazine and Amber Sports reviewed her career and awarded her the belt she never received from the boxing commission. Presenting Diane Clark with a belt was a way of showing appreciation for her place in women’s boxing history, said Rosemary Clark. “Now, she has something she can frame on the wall and say, ‘Somebody recognized me for that history.’ ” At the shelter, Clark keeps the belt and her other boxing memorabilia in a black bag. “This is what is most precious to me,” she says. Every morning, she wakes at 4 a.m., showers, then sits on her bed and begins her exercises. “I do 50 of these,” she says, demonstrating leg lifts. “I do 50 wall push-ups. I do 100 calf raises.” Then she takes her shoes and uses them as boxing gloves. She punches, lightning fast, shadowboxing. Pow. Pow. Pow. Determined to make a comeback.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Getting Ready To Die Young: Children in Violent D.C. Neighborhoods Plan Their Own Funerals

[Congressional Record: February 24, 1994] From the Congressional Record Online via GPO Access [] GETTING READY TO DIE YOUNG ______ HON. LOUIS STOKES of ohio in the house of representatives Thursday, February 24, 1994 Mr. STOKES. Mr. Speaker, recently I read an article in the Washington Post which caught my attention. It discussed a growing fear among our Nation's children which demonstrated to me just how drastically the times have changed. The article entitled ``Getting Ready To Die Young,'' brings to our attention children, many under 12 years of age, who are planning their own funerals. It is unfortunate that today's youth are exposed to crime, drugs, and violence which infests their communities and plagues American society. Many children have witnessed family members dying a violent death, while others know of classmates, friends, and neighbors who have been killed. As a result of their environment, they conclude that death is imminent and, consequently, plan for another of life's events--their own funeral. The article states that children have prepared drafts of statements for their mourners to say at their funeral. Students, not yet high school age, have told family and friends how and where they want to be buried, and what songs they want to be played while they lay in their coffin. In my teenage years, I remember planning for my senior prom, my high school graduation and my first day of college. These events to which I, and so many others of us, so often looked forward, are also the same events which we frequently recall with fond memories in our older years. It is deplorable that our children, our Nation's greatest resource, have given up hope for such memories. It is alarming that here in our Nation's capital, and in cities throughout the United States, students plan for their funerals with the same consideration as one would plan for a wedding. Because I do not want the severity and the magnitude of this issue to be overlooked, I believe that it is important to share this article with my colleagues. The article follows: [From the Washington Post, Nov. 1, 1993] Getting Ready To Die Young: Children in Violent D.C. Neighborhoods Plan Their Own Funerals (By DeNeen L. Brown) Jessica Bradford knows five people who have been killed. It could happen to her, she says, so she has told her family that if she should get shot before her sixth-grade prom, she wants to be buried in her prom dress. Jessica is 11 years old. She has known since she was in fifth grade what she wanted to wear at her funeral. ``I think my prom dress is going to be the prettiest dress of all,'' Jessica said. ``When I die, I want to be dressy for my family.'' In the last five years, 224 children younger than 18 have been killed in the District either as targets of shootings or as bystanders. The carnage has been taken in by children who live close to the gunfire, such as Jessica, and by some children removed from it. As they've mastered Nintendo, double Dutch and long division, some children have sized up their surroundings and concluded that death is close at hand. So, like Jessica, they have begun planning their funerals. According to interviews with about 35 youths and adults who work with them, children as young as 10 have told friends how they want to be buried, what they want to wear and what songs they want played at their funerals. Some young people dictate what they want their mourners to wear and say they want their funeral floral arrangements to spell out the names of their favorite brands of clothing. Jessica, a sixth-grader at Payne Elementary School and a cheerleader at the Boys and Girls Club across the street from her home near 17th Street and Massachusetts Avenue SE, has heard gunfire as she walked to the grocery store. She has seen a body on her playground. ``Most 11-year-olds think about their funerals all the time,'' Jessica said, as she sat in her living room with her mother and aunt. ``Most of my friends who are 11 live around violence. When I die, I hope it won't be from violence. I don't want to get shot.'' Community activists, social workers and psychologists who have studied the effects on young people of living amid violence say children who plan their own funerals are showing that they do not expect to live long. ``It's strange to hear young kids talking about dying, but that goes along with the times,'' said Sharon Brooks, 32, an instructor at the Boys and Girls Club. ``For them to come tell you someone was murdered the night before is just like regular conversation.'' William W. Johnson, a former police officer who works with youths in the District, said death is almost a daily reality for some. ``It's happening around them. . . . These kids come home to dope, guns and killing. We're living in a war zone,'' Johnson said. ``They actually believe they are not going to be around. If you look at the circumstances and the facts, they have enough to think that way.'' According to the D.C. Department of Human Services, 50.8 percent of young people 15 to 24 years old who died in the city during the last decade were victims of homicide. A recent national report on violence and youth by the American Psychological Association said teenagers are 2\1/2\ times as likely to be victims of violent crimes as people over 20. Douglas Marlowe, a psychologist at Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia, said children often become fascinated with death during adolescence. Usually, he said, young people romanticize death or read literature about death in an effort to gain control over dying. But Marlowe said planning a funeral is ``extremely fatalistic'' and is not a normal part of adolescent development. ``Once they start planning their own funerals, they have given up. They are not trying to conquer death anymore,'' he said. ``They are now turning themselves over.'' Jessica's mother and aunt said they were not surprised when the 11-year-old started talking about her funeral because she has known so many people who have died. A year ago, the brother of former police chief Isaac Fulwood Jr., Theodore, was killed three blocks from Jessica's house. About a month later, Jessica's 21-year-old cousin, Stanley Richard Hunter Jr., was killed. Two weeks after that, Hunter's 18-year-old friend was slain in a drive-by shooting. Then an elderly woman who lived three doors away from Jessica was gunned down in her house because she had witnessed a slaying and was to testify in the case. With so much violence around her, Jessica's aunt, Wilma Hunter, says she understands the girl's wish to be buried in her prom dress. ``When I was growing up, we always expected to live,'' Hunter said. ``Now it's almost like they really can't be sure they will live to be an adult when they see people dying around them.'' Hunter works with mentally retarded children at a center in Montgomery County. She has helped rear Jessica and her sisters. She said her nieces have awakened at night crying because they have dreams and visions about funerals. Rona Fields, a psychologist who has studied children living in war zones in Northern Ireland, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Beirut and Southeast Asia and in violent U.S. cities, said she sees similarities in the way children react to violence. Fields said she has seen children in Palestinian camps acting out burials, literally digging their own graves and lying in the holes. ``The children who dig their own grave and put themselves in it are not necessarily pathological; they are children whose experience of the world is glorification of the victim and the hero,'' Fields said. Young people here who plan their funerals often fall into two groups, according to adults who work with them. There are ``good kids'' who have seen many of their friends die violently, and there are those who are involved in selling drugs and think someone may be after them. Howard Reed, 15, said he doesn't sell drugs and knows of no one who is after him, but still he is not sure whether he will live. He said he has escaped bullets at nightclubs and is wary of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. ``Things just go wrong in this world,'' he said. ``If people don't like you or they don't like the way you walk or talk, they are going to try to take care of it.'' Howard, a ninth-grader at Hine Junior High School, has told friends that if he should die soon, he wants his funeral to be ``different than everybody else's.'' ``I don't want my hands like this,'' he said, folding them across his chest. ``I want to be buried with peace signs. And I don't want my funeral to be in a church. I want it at Rollins Funeral Home, and I want to be buried at Harmony [Memorial Park]. I want to wear sweats and tennis shoes. I don't want to be buried in a suit.'' Howard's mother said she wants her son to be a lawyer when he grows up. But she said it also is necessary to plan for early death. She has talked with her children about the possibility. ``I've told them life is nothing to be played with,'' said Howard's mother, who did not want her name used. ``Bullets don't have any names. You can be anywhere and get hit by a bullet.'' Alicia Brown, 14, an eighth-grader at Eliot Junior High, lives near C and 17th streets SE, where her mother says parents are afraid for their children to go to school. Alicia, who wants to be a lawyer, said, ``I pray to God, I hope I make it through this day. It seems like people are just killing without thinking. ``One friend got killed, and he was just riding a bike. I figured the bullet could have hit me. Sometimes, I picture my funeral. Because when I go to a friend's funeral, I picture myself. Things come in my mind. It could be me laying there.'' ``When her friends do die, I try to talk to her about it,'' said Alicia's mother, Isha Williams, 30, whose family owns a photography studio. ``For a young mind, they are handling death as casually as going to a movie now. For them, it's an everyday thing.'' During Ericca Benton's senior year at McKinley High School, four classmates were fatally shot. She started to think that she wasn't going to make it, so she sat down one day and began planning her funeral. ``On the top of the page, I wrote my name a couple of times because I like to write my name,'' said Benton, now a 21- year-old senior at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. ``Then I wrote the songs I want sung. Then I wanted a tape of me talking, telling everybody I'm all right. I'm real dramatic, you know. But I was serious. Then I wrote who I want to talk. . . . And I told my mother what to wear.'' She then sealed the envelope and gave it to her mother. Some youths say they have rearranged their lives to avoid death. ``You can't go to a club; it's like a death trap,'' said Raymond Rouse, 17, who lives near Ninth and O streets NW. ``You are liable to get hit by a bullet or something. Rich kids don't have to think about this. They keep talking about stress. They haven't seen stress until they live out here.'' Rouse and two friends, Cornelius Edmonds, 18, and Chris Thomas, 17, grew up in a neighborhood where there are frequent shootings. They said they think about death because they see it so often. They knew Mustaffi ``Lucky'' Miller, a 16-year-old who was fatally shot two weeks ago. They knew Leonard ``Stinkaman'' Cole III, also 16, who was killed in 1991 after a dispute with a rival gang. Survival, they say, is a skill they have had to learn. They are careful about offending, because ``if you did something to somebody, somebody is going to get a `get-back' [retaliation],'' Edmonds said. The three say they think about death and accept it. ``If it's your time, it's your time,'' Edmonds said. ``If somebody is looking for me, I can't get nervous. If I know somebody is trying to get me, I'm going to get them first.'' Rouse, who like many young people seems to believe he is invincible, said: ``I ain't going to worry about it. If it catches me it catches me.'' Thomas said he doesn't believe he's going to die, ``because I'm just not going to let anybody kill me.'' They have dreams about getting out of the neighborhood, marriage and manhood. Edmonds, who said he just got out of jail for doing something ``stupid,'' wants to be a computer engineer. His friends laughed at him because he doesn't have a computer. Rouse wants to move to Virginia and sell real estate. Thomas wants to get a job that makes money. ``If I had some money, I would be gone,'' he said. ``I would go down to Florida.'' Rouse looked at Thomas curiously. ``They kill people down there,'' he said. ``You ain't seen the news?'' Their dreams are cut short by not knowing how long they will survive the neighborhood. ``I've said when it happens to me,'' Edmonds said, ``I want them to sing at my funeral, you know, that new song on the radio, `This Is to My Homeys.''' The song is actually titled ``Gangsta Lean.'' It is a ballad by a group called DRS about young men dying. It was the most-requested song recently at WPGC-FM radio. The video version shows a boy's body propped up in a coffin in the ``gangsta lean.'' Many of the young people interviewed said they can relate to the song's lyrics: ``This song is dedicated to my homeys in that gangsta lean. Why'd you have to go so soon? It seems like yesterday we were hangin' 'round the hood. Now I'm going to keep your memory alive like a homey should.'' Although many teenagers say they fear dying, death has become honored in some communities, said David Arnett, 32, the manhood training coordinator at Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast Washington. ``Just as the lives some of the youngsters lead have been glorified, those who die in that life have been glorified as well,'' Arnett said. Arnett said that when he hears his students talking about their funerals, he interrupts quickly. ``I try to interject, `You know how you want to die. How do you want to live?''' Arnett said. ``I say, `Would you consider planning your life as well as you plan your death?'''

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

DeNeen Brown: Feature: "Nobody Can Be Fabulous Looking Scared and Broke"

Retail Relief
At Constitution Hall, a Girls Night Out With Wall Street Blues Nowhere in Sight
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer

'Twas the night after the crash. And outside the news was dire, nerve-racking. Ugly. All gloom and doom. A week of financial markets tumbling. Creating creases above the brow, parentheses around the painted lips. So not good for the complexion. Nobody can be fabulous looking scared and broke.
And yet inside DAR Constitution Hall, in bottles and on hangers, there was happiness. Tuesday night was Girls Night Out, and the world was fabulous. New purses, new dresses, makeup, shoes -- and cocktails. Girlfriends shopped with girlfriends in an intoxicating circle of smells and sounds and fabrics.
The earrings that dangle into oblivion. The "Omigod" baby blue dress hanging there alone on a rack, begging to be had. The sweet Bacardi drinks, the cubes of sharp cheese. The too-cute-for-words baby-doll sweater, too small, but too adorable to leave behind. The Dove soap bar with scents you've never heard of. And here was a woman spraying a beautiful card with mint-and-water-lily scent and waving it in your face. And your senses exploded.
All around, women were smiling, giddy, on their treasure hunt for the perfect dress, because there is nothing like a new dress to make you feel better.
Girlfriends' Heaven was brought to you the last two nights (and will be brought to you again tonight) by Shecky's, a marketing company that a few years ago tapped into women's desire to shop for beautiful, discounted things with their BFFs by their sides. They can do that at the mall, but this is intimate and exclusive, the difference between going to a restaurant and being invited to a wonderful dinner party with more than a thousand friends.
Shecky's sets up Girls Night Out in major cities across the country several nights a year. For an entrance ticket of about $25, women are provided a five-hour shopping experience in a convention center where up-and-coming designers display their wares and vendors provide complimentary cocktails, makeovers and goodie bags.
The nights were launched in 2001. "We wanted to create the ultimate girlfriend experience where women could come out and enjoy everything they loved in life: shopping and cocktails," said Claudia Chan, president of Shecky's, which she calls a girlfriend-lifestyle media marketing company.
The experience has grown from one night and one city to more than 20 major cities.
"If the world looked like 'Sex and the City,' it would look like our event," Chan said. "I call it a Super Bowl for women. If men bond over sports, women bond over fashion. Time to yourself and time with your girlfriends is so important."
Chan, 33, was spinning through the place. ("Do you want a cocktail first?") She waved at buyers and sellers. "Look! All the girls are in pairs. They are so totally focused on looking at products," she said. "It's like a drug: 'How does this look on me? Wouldn't this go with the other thing I bought?' "
She passed designers hawking their dresses as market women do in so many different parts of the world. Just then, a woman in a short black dress screamed in delight: " This is so amazingly cute!"
Chan climbed a set of stairs to a lounge set up by Nintendo, with curved white leather seats under blue lights next to white laminated tables where video games sat beside game covers wrapped in bling!
Why does bling draw us so?
"Before Facebook, these were the social networks in their most natural form. When a girlfriend likes something, she is the first one to tell all her girlfriends about it," Chan said.
While they -- the men and the women on Wall Street -- try to solve the problems of the world, we shop. Frivolity to stomp the bad news.
"Honestly, I'm not thinking about that tonight," said Ivy Chan, 34, a government worker (and no relation to Claudia) who lives in Silver Spring. "Tonight's girls' night. . . . It's like you've stepped away from the real world."
She sinks down onto the white leather sofa next to Winne Wong. "This is my best friend BFF!" And the two women who have been friends since childhood giggle. And you understand, because there is nothing like a best friend who does not require background information or even a rational reason when you call her, choked up, can barely speak and she knows just what to say -- or not to say.
"With a best friend, you can share everything and anything. You don't have to hold anything back," Chan said. "No matter how goofy you are, she just knows."
Chan reached over and gave Andrea Massengile, 44, of Southeast Washington, a hug: "This is my sister," she said, pressing her face against Massengile.
"It's a bonding moment," said Leann Luong, 28, of Northwest Washington, who stood nearby. For this moment, she, too, was unconcerned by a crashing stock market. "It's so happy in here," Luong said. "You have shopping. What more can a girl want?"
On the speakers, Mary J. Blige was singing loudly: "Work what you've got." Mary, if only you knew, girl, if you only knew.
Massengile was stopped by the jewelry. And then she saw the most marvelous, most beautiful necklace made of orange coral, held together by thin silver. Her fingers traced the coral. And its color sang out. For a moment, the necklace was enchanting, like a siren pulling its admirer in against its rocks, begging that she dig deep into the wallet. But no. She moved on. And just like that, the power of the necklace was broken. It retreated on the table, waiting for another soul who wants it more.
All around, women were diving into racks of dresses. Admiring rhinestones sewn on bodices. And red fingernails trying on freshwater pearl rings.
There is artistry in the way women trip over each other, bump into each other, to get to that dress before someone else captures it. Attracted to bling like a bird attracted to ribbon.
Reagan Heine, 41, of Lavon, Tex., pulled out an orange-sherbet dress. "We are from Texas, where shopping is a passion," Heine said. "We've got to have pretty things to look at and try on and we need a second opinion." She whips out a wad of cash. "We are bartenders. We live on cash."
"If we don't have it, we don't spend it," said Barbara Rahe, 59, of Dallas. They are in town for a conference.
They have been friends for a long time. "Nothing better. It's someone who watches out for your soul as much as you do," Heine said. "They know when you are hurting.
"Girlfriends notice things," she said. They notice you made the effort to sweep your hair in another direction today. To put on those three strands of pearls. "Women friends are good to take along on the journey," Heine said.
And there sat Selma Karaca, a New York fashion designer, with a piece of fabric on her lap, pins holding the 100-year-old silk together. She was making a wedding dress for a 60-year-old dancer who is getting married for the first time. On her lap, she was pinning together hope, weaving a dress of desire.
"I love making things with my hands," she said. "Women like touch. It's important. I sold my softest materials tonight. More than other fabrics, the soft and the sensual makes a woman want to put it on. Something beautiful. It tells you, 'To get me, I want to be on.' "
Her dresses are spirals, one piece of ribbon spun round and round, fitted to a woman's body. "They spin and whirl," Karaca said. "I'm from Turkey. The spiral is the life source. Every creature has this spiral."
Just then, a woman dove into the rack like a cougar and snatched a long black spiral dress.
"Wouldn't this look so hot on me?" said Jodi Wilson, 35, an acquisition analyst who lives in Fort Washington. "I'm serious. That dress is so hot."
Her friends told her yes, it was true, the dress suited her. Women are each other's mirrors. A friend can look in your face and read there whether she looks good. Whether her lipstick is askew, whether her jewelry is too much, whether her hair needs to be done.
And the night wore on. And group by group, the girlfriends vanished, slipping into the cool, black night full of grim news, happy with their treasures.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

DeNeen Brown: A Child's Hell in the Lord's Resistance Army Years After She Escaped Ugandan Rebels, Grace Akallo Fights to End a War

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 10, 2006 

War is ugly.
Yet she is still beautiful, sitting there with her scarred cinnamon brown skin. Her lips shine with a natural gloss. Her legs are wounded and polished.
Her eyes flicker with a comprehension of having gone to hell and returned to this side.
And she is telling how she survived.
She is here to put a face on the war. Tell about the atrocities, cruel and brutal; recount the scenes of a war in northern Uganda, where rebels led by a madman steal sleeping children from their beds, because children are easier to brainwash. Tell of rebels who smear the children with oil, promising that the oil will protect them. That the bullets will bounce off the oil. And the children believe them. Then they force the children to kill or be killed.
Grace Akallo, once one of those children, is waiting in the office of Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who has requested to see her. The senator emerges from a meeting and introduces Grace, now 26, to a member of his entourage:
"The Lord's Resistance Army came in one night and took her into captivity."
"How long were you in captivity?" the man asks Grace.
"Seven months," Grace answers.
"Seven months," the man says. "Bless your heart and welcome to Washington."
She has come to Washington to get the U.S. government to do what it can to stop the war in northern Uganda, a 20-year-old war in which more than 30,000 children have been abducted, held in captivity and forced to fight in the Lord's Resistance Army.
The LRA, which wants to topple the Ugandan government and create a government based on the Ten Commandments as law, is led by Joseph Kony, who claims to represent the Acholi people. Except support among the Acholi has dwindled, and adults ceased to enlist in the LRA. But children were more easily manipulated. The LRA began snatching them from villages. Grace says children make up more than 80 percent of the LRA. They are subjected to a "spiritual initiation" and sometimes ordered to kill relatives or neighbors. Pretty girls are given to older commanders as wives; the others are often killed.
Grace tells her story with passion but also with a kind of disassociation from the horrors that she as an unwilling child soldier witnessed and endured. She, too, had to kill people. She remembers being ordered to beat a little girl, taking a small stick and hitting the girl's legs. And because she was not hitting hard enough, one of the rebel commanders took a stick and hit Grace in the back of the head: "You know the soft part where it hurts." She blacked out. And when she came to, the little girl was already dead.
An Uneasy Sleep
Many children who live in northern Uganda leave their villages every night and commute to town centers in search of safe places to sleep. They have been called "Invisible Children." On April 29, people across the United States marched in a "Night Commute" to shed light on the plight of children in northern Uganda. In Washington, about 1,200 people camped in a plaza down the street from the Capitol. They crept on the ground, drew pictures and wrote letters to President Bush to ask the U.S. government to appoint a peace negotiator in Uganda.
"We are sleeping here because the kids in Uganda have to sleep outside because they fear being abducted by the rebels," said Bobby Bailey, 24, a filmmaker and co-founder of Invisible Children, a group organized to help children in Uganda. "Me and a few other guys went to northern Uganda in 2003 and made this movie. What we found inspired us to make a difference."
The documentary was made by three white kids from San Diego who went to Africa in search of a story -- any story. At first, like excited frat boys, they filmed themselves -- killing a snake emerging from its hole, getting sick, dancing, marveling at the African landscape. Then one night, they stumbled upon children sleeping in a town square. "We were going to Sudan because of the genocide," says Bailey, "but our host took us to a refugee camp in northern Uganda. Then a vehicle gets bombed in front of us. We say, 'What's going on?' She says we are in the middle of a war. We say, 'What war?' Then she took us to the city and we saw thousands of kids sleeping, lying down with blankets without their parents."
Cameras rolling, they began asking the children questions. Why are you here?
One boy, maybe 10, his English like the clear, lyrical recitation of a horrible epic, told how his brother had been killed by the rebels. He began to sob. The camera remains trained on the child's face until intimacy becomes torment.
Stolen Children
Before she was abducted, Grace begged her father to send her to school, a privilege often reserved for boys in Uganda. She went to board at St. Mary's College, a convent run by Italian nuns in Aboke.
The school was an oasis in the midst of war -- during the day. At night, the students had to leave their beds to go into town to avoid being abducted by the rebels. When Sister Rachelle Fassera heard of rebel movements, she would warn the girls to get their blankets and head to the city center to sleep that night. "Every night, Sister would say, leave your books on your desk. Go to the dormitory and take only your blanket."
It was Independence Day. There were no classes. The girls were dancing. People were happy. Grace remembers someone saying, "Maybe this is the last time we will dance."
She remembers Sister Rachelle going out to find government soldiers to guard the dormitories that night. She returned with a promise of protection, but by midnight, no soldiers had arrived. The rebels attacked.
The rebels found the dormitory with the younger girls, and flashed lights through the windows. Grace remembers the beam freezing on the face of one girl, her eyes wide with fright. She heard a rebel shout: "They are there!"
The rebels demanded that the girls open the door, or they would throw bombs inside. One girl did, thinking it would give others a chance to escape.
In a moment of thick fear, the mind gets confused. Grace tried three times to change into a proper dress. Tried three times to slip on some shoes. But her mind would not engage her body to obey. She would spend the next seven months walking through the bush in a nightgown, barefoot.
"I was confused seeing the machete and seeing the gun. I thought I was going to die. My body went numb. I tried to put on that dress that would allow me to run."
The night of the abduction, Grace was 15. She would turn 16 in the bush with the rebels. The rebels made the girls tie themselves to a long rope. "It was not the time for tears. Girls were screaming."
The rebels marched 139 girls out of the school and into the darkness. They walked one night and one day, through the bush, following no road. The rebels did not realize Sister Rachelle was following their tracks.
When she found them, the nun fell on her knees and begged the rebels to let her girls go. "She was telling him, 'Take me and release the girls, or kill me and release my children.' '' The commander made her take off her habit. "The veil is very important to the sisters," Grace said. "She removed it because she wanted the girls rescued. She had money and medicine. I wish you had seen her. She was so desperate."
The rebels sat down on banana leaves and began dividing the girls into two groups. "If you looked scared, you are picked. If you looked confident, you are picked. We thought they would kill either group. The girls were trying to disfigure themselves so they would be left behind." Some girls hitched arms up, trying to look crippled. Grace tied her nightgown, hoping they would think she was pregnant and have no use for her.
Twenty-eight girls were chosen to sit in a separate place. "They chose 28, but they wanted 30. The guy came to me and he said, 'Didn't I select you?' I said, 'No, sir.' He took me to the leader of the big group. They said I would be an example to the others."
"Kill me!" Sister Rachelle shouted. "Don't kill her."
The nun knelt down before the commander. The commander told her, "I'm not a god. Get up." Then, 109 girls were chosen, freed to go with Sister Rachelle.
The girls left behind began to wail. Grace can still hear their screams: No, we would rather die than stay with these people.
The 30 girls left with the rebels were warned: If any one girl escaped, the 29 left behind would die.
For seven months, they were held captive.
Grace's group was marched to southern Sudan, where rebels lived in bases protected by allies of the Sudanese government. The girls were taught to clean and dismantle guns. "The first thing, you're beaten. The beating is to initiate you into the army," Grace would testify more than a decade later, on another continent, in another world, in another life. "The second thing, you're forced to kill someone." She told the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations how she was forced to abduct other children: "The more you abduct, the more they give you a rank."
She said Joseph Kony uses "the spirit" to control his young brainwashed soldiers. "When you enter, they smear you with shea nut oil . . . they say that is protection." Then there is a ritual. "They tell you that, 'You do something, you dead. You think of escape, you dead . . . We already know your thoughts.' "
The older girls "became wives" to the men. "In Uganda, we don't say we were abused. There is no word for sex. It is not mentioned. They gave you as wives."
Escape was out of the question. "It's hard to hope."
One night, the children were ordered to invade a village. Grace remembers fainting from thirst, then waking up later in a shallow grave. She walked for three days, eating soil and leaves. She found another group of children who had escaped. "One wanted to kill me. I told them I am not going to die. I escaped from bullets." She persuaded them to join her. They started walking. Some villagers found them and turned them over to the Ugandan soldiers.
Grace was free.
Getting Normal Again
Grace found her family, then returned to St. Mary's to finish school, where Sister Rachelle was still teaching. She also began working as a counselor in a center Sister Rachelle had created for children who had escaped. Grace remembers one child in particular, Evelyn, whom the rebels had used as a shield. Evelyn had been shot in the mouth. "Most of the time, she would feel like her life was destroyed," Grace says. "I would tell her you never know how God works. She still had a future. I would relate my story to her. I told her I escaped and managed to go back to school and I am here to be with you. You can do that. You can become what you want even after going through the torture."
While studying at Uganda Christian University, near Kampala, Grace got a visa to travel to New York to visit Amnesty International. There, she met students who had gone on an exchange program to Uganda from Gordon College near Boston. "I asked them about the school and I applied and I got a scholarship." She is majoring in communications, but hopes to go to graduate school to study international relations and conflict resolution, and maybe someday travel back to Uganda to help the children. "I want to be part of the people struggling day and night to try to bring peace in the world," she told the subcommittee.
During her brief visit to the Hill, the child soldier turned activist lectures senators in hushed elevators and underground shuttles ferrying them to the Capitol. She is accompanied by earnest handlers. Star-struck, she shakes the hand of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and compliments him on his book. "I just finished writing a paper about you," she gushes.
Calm and poised, she urges members of Congress to use their influence to pressure the Ugandan government to end the war, to pressure the government of Sudan to stop supporting the Lord's Resistance Army.
At one point during her testimony, Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.) wanted to know more about survival, about how you ever fully escape war.
"How does a human being at any age, any sex, endure and live to tell about it?" Watson asked. "Do you feel they'll ever be normal again? You've learned to use a gun to kill. And I'm wondering how we could really impact on that. And I thought maybe since you've gone on with your education, you probably have insights that can help us as we try to help you and others like you."
Grace thanked her. "These children need love. These children need peace. These children need concrete futures. A matter of counseling a child for only six months doesn't help." Reclaiming a normal life takes more than that for a child no longer a soldier.
"I'm going back home. I'm going back to a community that does not accept me. I'm going back to a community where there's no food," Grace explains. "I'm going back to a community that's terrible. Like, I'm used to now getting food from the people forcibly, but I'm going home and I don't have food. Now, how do I get normal again?"
The day after her testifimony, Grace returns to the Hill to see Brownback, whom she met two years ago when he was on a fact-finding mission to Uganda. Brownback invites her to join him as he races to the Capitol to vote. Grace speaks bluntly as they head to the elevator. "The U.S. government needs to get the Ugandan government to talk peace," she says. "When they abduct you, they kill people. They force you to kill people when they try to escape."
Brownback excuses himself: "I need to go vote and I'll be right back."
Grace finds herself standing there patiently, in sandaled feet and proper dress, while barefoot children are being stolen in the night in Uganda. And the activist that she has become does what she once did as a soldier.
She waits.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The 2009 People’s Inaugural Ball changed lives

The 2009 People’s Inaugural Ball changed lives

By Published: January 17

Somewhere in the crowd that night stood homeless people, wounded service members, flood survivors. If you looked into the ballroom, it would have been hard to distinguish the millionaires from the people who had only pennies in their pockets. They would dine on lobster and steak, nibble on white chocolate. They would shake hands with celebrities and dance until night moved into day. No one would know that a ripple of change was making its way through the crowd that night, and that the People’s Inaugural Ball, celebrating the first African American president in U.S. history, would transform lives one by one.
As they walked down 14th Street, Emily Miller and Elaine Webber might as well have been floating. Emily Miller carried an elegant hot-pink satin gown. Elaine Webber held a chocolate-and-cream designer dress with delicate hand-sewn crystals.
Nobody watching the women as they made their way toward the JW Marriott Hotel that January night in 2009 would have known that, not long ago, they had been living on the streets, addicted and homeless.
“I preferred to eat food out of trash cans and save my money for drugs,” Elaine said. She had spent 10 years sitting at a bus stop, passing out and coming to — no clean clothes, no bath for days, sometimes months.
Emily would say she felt so down, she couldn’t see up. She didn’t realize that deep inside her a light was still on, and that someday, someone would see it.
Yet here they were, heading to the ball with their hair done and nails painted, about to step into history, sensing but not completely knowing that the ball this night would change their lives forever.
This was one party they did not want to be late for.
“Hurry,” Emily said to Elaine. “I feel like Cinderella.”
At the Marriott on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, the host of the ball, Fairfax County philanthropist Earl W. Stafford, waited in a black tuxedo. About two weeks before, the millionaire had sold Unitech, a simulation technology company he had founded in 1988, to Lockheed Martin for an undisclosed amount.
The deal had been stressful, but now he could turn his attention to what he believed he was meant to do in life: help the disadvantaged, the homeless, the dying, the wounded, the disabled. People overlooked by society. The son of a part-time Baptist minister and a man of deep faith himself, he had set up the Stafford Foundation, a Christian nonprofit group, in 2002 and now could focus on it.
The inspiration to throw the ball had come during the 2008 primaries before he knew Obama would be president.
“I ... bought the presidential suite at the Hay-Adams six months ahead of time because I thought I would have some underserved homeless there to watch the parade, have some food and go home,” he said. But something told him that would be too little.
So, he paid $2 million for hotel rooms, transportation, food, gowns and tuxes, and invited 450 for a night beyond their most outlandish dreams.
In 1972, MIT scientist Edward Lorenz presented a paper titled “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” in which he asked whether a small catalyst could lead to a bigger change.
Someone might say this happened in the ballroom that night.
Emily and Elaine slipped into a restroom off the lobby to dress. It took three women to help Elaine squeeze into her gown.
“Hold it! Hold it!” She took in a deep breath. “I hadn’t been in a gown since my prom.”
It had been a long time since she “acted like a lady.”
Less than three years earlier, Elaine had been living on the street. “I spent most of the time at the corner of 11th and M streets, sitting at a bus shelter, passing out at night and coming to in the morning,” she said. “I gave my children up for adoption, the younger ones.”
One day in 2006, Elaine looked up to see a woman she used to hang out with on the streets, but the woman looked different. The woman had on clean clothes.
“She had money, and she was going to the store,” said Elaine, now 54.
“She told me she went to N Street Village” in Northwest Washington, which calls itself a “community of empowerment and recovery for women.”
Elaine decided to go to N Street, as well. While she was living there and in treatment for her addiction, she also volunteered at the shelter, which was one of the reasons she was chosen, along with eight other women, to go to the ball.
Emily was one of those other women. She had come to N Street Village in 2006 “in a state of complete despair” after living years on the street as an addict. She had had guns held to her head. She had been assaulted. She had moved from a house, to a room, to an abandoned car that was colder than the air outside. She had stopped and started recovery programs.
“I was just tired. Plain tired,” recalled Emily, now 53. “Someone had told me about N Street years and years ago. One morning, I got up and I said, ‘I’m on my way.’ ”
At N Street, she found compassion, people who told her she was somebody.
It was the same thing Earl Stafford was telling his guests.
The minutes ticked up to the ball.
Elaine and Emily walked into the lobby. Someone snapped a photograph.
Emily would set that photo on her dressing table and look at it each morning afterward, reminding her that “miracles can happen every day.”
They stepped on the escalator and descended to the ballroom.
They gasped.
The tables were covered in fine linen. There was crystal and silver. And figurines made of white chocolate, trimmed in gold. For dinner, the women were served lobster tails and steak.
Their host moved through the room, thanking everyone for coming.
“It was just the who’s who of the everyday world,” Elaine said. “Some homeless. Some low-income. Some no-income. The inaugural ball for the people.”
In the midst of the crowd stood retired Capt. Alvin Shell Jr., a wounded war hero.
Alvin isn’t sure who put him on a list of wounded service members to receive an invitation to the ball. “My wife and I had never been to anything like it before.”
Alvin was injured in Iraq in 2004 after his platoon was called to provide cover for a convoy hit by a roadside bomb. Gas was pouring down the street, drenching the soldiers. That’s when Iraqis shot a rocket-propelled grenade.
Alvin was knocked out for a half-minute. When he came to, he ran to a soldier who was ablaze. He patted the soldier down and pushed him to safety. When he looked up, a wall of flames had surrounded him.
“The only way I could get out was to cover my face and run through the fire,” Alvin recalled. My clothes were soaked in gasoline. I was engulfed in flames. ... I pulled my vest off. I pulled my clothes off. But my skin was on fire. I ran over to a ditch and hurled myself in the ditch, jumping into dirty water.
“We took care of the bad guys. I told everyone let’s go back. ... I thought I was fine. But the whole time I’m smoldering.”
When the convoy finally got to safety, Alvin got out. “I felt pain like I never felt before.”
He collapsed. He was in a medically induced coma when he was transported from Baghdad to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. He would spend 2004 to 2006 recovering.
Healthy skin from his left side would be pulled off, then stapled to the right side of his body. His elbow would be broken and re-broken. He would not be able to talk because smoke inhalation had damaged his voice box. Doctors told him he might not walk again.
But Alvin’s family encouraged him. His mother, a speech pathologist, demanded that he talk instead of whisper, to exercise his vocal cords. His wife and father “literally held me up, putting their bodies under my shoulders, helping me take my first steps.”
By 2009, the night of the ball, Alvin was mostly healed. “It’s like a testimony. God can heal someone who got burned to the bone.”
In the ballroom that evening, Alvin, who was medically retired from the Army and now works as chief of the physical security division for Homeland Security, decided he wanted to be part of the change and use what God had healed to heal others.
“I think for me and my wife, we felt a change and we wanted to be part of it,” said Alvin, now 36. “At the ball, we were kind of on the outside looking in. It felt like we were playing a part.”
Alvin felt inspired to do something. “We didn’t know what it was,” he said, “but we wanted to keep that feeling going after the ball. ... I started thinking, ‘I’m better off than other individuals.’ ”
A few months later, the Army’s Wounded Warrior Program asked Alvin to talk to a crowd of federal employers and contract companies at Homeland Security. He shared the story of his recovery and the difficulties he faced finding a job. Then, someone asked him to speak at a Veterans Day event at Fort Belvoir. “It just snowballed. I never really said no. ... It’s every soldier’s story. A lot of other guys have seen a lot worse.”
He would go on to make dozens of speeches with the Wounded Warrior and Tempered Steel programs, in which wounded servicemen and servicewomen tell their stories of recovery. He would speak at schools, at hospitals and at private corporations, encouraging injured soldiers and urging companies to hire returning war veterans.
Retired Staff Sgt. Wesley Spaid, the soldier whose life Alvin saved in Iraq, has heard him speak to wounded veterans: “He shows there is a capability for someone who doesn’t think there is capability to progress in your life. It keeps their hopes alive.”
“It’s something he probably wouldn’t have done before the ball. He didn’t think he had something to contribute,” said Ayandria Barry, advocate for the Wounded Warrior Program. “After being there and people thanking him for his service, he has been on a roll.”
Elsewhere in the room was Janina Aubrey, who had traveled from Massachusetts with five other people from Cape Abilities, a nonprofit in Hyannis on Cape Cod that serves people with developmental and physical disabilities.
Janina wore a long black ball gown. She was excited to be in Washington “and staying at the hotel and seeing a lot of people there. And seeing Obama inside the room with his picture up there. I like his wife and his two kids.”
Janina, now 49, said she felt happy at the ball, “with all the people. We ate dinner, then snack, then salad, then drink coffee, then water.”
She took a picture with a cutout of the newly elected president. But she was no stranger to celebrities. She knows the Kennedys, through their support of Massachusetts nonprofit groups that support people with developmental disabilities. She was a star in the Special Olympics and had recently received an award from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrickfor putting together the most informational packets during a competition sponsored by the state tourism council.
After the ball, the Stafford Foundation asked the groups represented that night what could help them. Earl Stafford traveled to Massachusetts and toured one of the Cape Abilities sites. “We showed him what we were doing with the Centerville Pie operation, which was small-scale at that point. We were peeling apples and deboning the chicken to be used in chicken pies,” said Larry Thayer, 64, president of Cape Abilities. After the tour, Cape Abilities received a grant for $20,000 from the Stafford Foundation, allowing the group to expand its kitchen.
Later, when Eunice Kennedy Shriver died in August 2009, Cape Abilities members were asked to serve as honor guards at her funeral.
Oprah Winfrey attended the funeral.
Oprah often says: “In life there are no coincidences.”
After the service that weekend, two pies from Centerville Pie Co. were delivered to Oprah and Gayle King at their hotel. Oprah asked the pie owners to appear on her show. Later, she named the pie company one of her 25 favorite things. Publicity about the pie company exploded. Requests for orders soared. The owners of the pie company asked Cape Abilities for more help to meet increased production demands. And Cape Abilities was able to hire 30 more people with disabilities to help produce more pies.
When the house lights came on about midnight, Elaine and Emily wondered where the time had flown. The whole night was surreal.
Emily caught a Metro bus home. “It was cold that night. It was exhilarating. People were asking me, ‘Are you just coming from the ball? How was it?’ I was being interviewed by total strangers. They wanted to know what it was like. ... I felt like I was floating, walking up the street, like anything is possible.”
She credits the ball with helping her go back to college. “That night, all the pieces of the puzzle began to click,” Emily said. “My mind-set started to change. ... What that event did for me is, it internally let me know the sky is the limit.” With the encouragement of her pastor, Bishop Neavelle Coles, and the help of a fellow shelter volunteer who had graduated from Trinity Washington University, she enrolled there in 2011.
Every day before class, she looks at the photograph of her and Elaine at the ball. Every now and again, she pulls out her magical pink dress and her silver shoes.
“These are items I will never depart from, because it is a constant reminder of where I’ve been and where I am now,” she said. “I’m in the initial stages of home ownership. I attend Trinity Washington University. I’m studying human relations. I am an employee here at N Street. My plate is full. I’m able to give back and help those in need, because I have compassion and just knowing I’ve been where you are.”
The ball was a real-life high for the women who were in recovery, said Schroeder Stribling, executive director of N Street Village. “For our women in recovery, experiences like that are peak experiences. It is a new way of knowing there is a sense of possibility for a new life. They got invited to a real ball, something they are usually excluded from, by being on the margins. It gave them hope.”
Elaine, too, says the ball was a turning point. After living almost 30 years with one selfish devotion, something within her clicked. She started volunteering in the shelter’s dental clinic. Then the shelter hired her as a program assistant, and as one of her duties, she works in the cafeteria, providing warm meals for other women living on the street. Out of each paycheck, Elaine would donate $10. “A little bit in a nonprofit goes a long way,” she said.
“What changed for me was to see how Mr. Stafford took what he had to give joy to others. He treated everyone as an equal.”
A year after the ball, Elaine was walking to work one winter morning. Across the street, she saw a woman with no coat. Elaine asked the woman if she was cold. When the woman said yes, Elaine gave her her own coat, her favorite coat.
Elaine kept walking. “I thought, ‘I’m cold, but I feel good.’ I finally did something for someone else, not expecting to get something back.”
Never in a million days before the ball, Elaine said, would she have given up her favorite coat.
“It was a wonderful event,” Stafford said of the ball one year later. “But once the party is over, what is important is what you do when the cameras are off and the media is no longer interested in your story.”
Prompted by ideas generated by the ball, his Stafford Foundation created the Doing Good campaign to inspire and empower people — no matter their lot in life — to give back and make a difference in the world. In December, more than 70 clients of homeless shelters and other nonprofit groups delivered 1,900 gifts to patients in local hospitals and nursing and retirement homes as part of the campaign’s newest project, called Give Before You Get.
Stafford, who also has established a new holding company to support small businesses since the inaugural ball, stood in a corridor of Howard University Hospital, snapping photos as women from Rachael’s Women’s Centerhanded out gifts and sang songs with the patients.
“You really don’t know the ramifications of giving,” Stafford said. “Sometimes, it multiplies exponentially. You never know how giving might impact a person. That person may go off and pay it forward.”